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3 Revealing Lessons from a Sales Team Failure

I recently had a rare opportunity—a first in my 20 year recruiting career—to be able to perform a top to bottom survey of an entire organization’s sales, sales leadership, and sales engineering team.

This opportunity came on the heels of unprecedented news: a large startup in the data management space laid off their entire sales and marketing team following a bad Q1. This sparked a recruiter feeding frenzy—suddenly all those candidates were on the market, and I spoke to just about everyone in an effort to find exceptional candidates for my clients (and from the sounds of it, so did just about every other recruiter who works in the space).

Through the course of speaking with candidates, I started to develop some ideas about what likely went wrong—and I believe it can serve as a cautionary tale for other high-growth tech startups.

Here are the 3 hiring lessons that could have helped to prevent this kind of high-profile exodus from a high-growth, early-stage tech company:

1. Hire hungry.

For emerging companies, I’ve seen the highest degree of success in organizations who prioritize hiring sales people who are hungry — they have something to prove, and want to be part of something exciting and disruptive.

From what I heard in the market, this organization hired very experienced sales professionals who typically worked at large enterprise organizations. For the most part, their sales force just wasn’t thriving in the fast-paced, day-to-day hunting that their roles required. To make matters worse, their compensation packages were inflated to the point of distorting the market, which makes it even more difficult for their sales people to find their next role.

2. Hire people who have been successful in high-growth situations.

Some people really thrive in high-growth environments—they love the pace, are comfortable with the risk, and are excited to be a part of building something new. Others prefer stability and process, and are comfortable with a lower degree of risk. Each of these groups can be incredibly valuable, if they are working in the right organization.

When hiring for an early-stage, high-growth sales organization, it’s important to really dig into the experience and qualifications of potential candidates, and to qualify the details around how they sell, how they operate, and what kind of resources they are used to working with.

3. Hire from diverse networks.

I recommend that my clients stay away from what I call the “buddy hire” when they are building their sales teams. Of course, plenty of organizations hire successful candidates from their networks, and when former employees are willing to join an organization because they want to work with a sales leader again, it is the mark of a great manager.  

However, that becomes a problem when you hire exclusively from one network—especially when that network is full of people with vastly different experience than the organization needs. In this case, a lot of the sales force was hired out of one large enterprise company, which meant that the vast majority of employees simply weren’t equipped for the high-growth, fast-paced environment.


It’s rare for a recruiter like myself to get such an in depth look at the hiring practices of another organization. While it’s impossible to see the full picture—it’s unprecedented to let go the entire sales and marketing team all at once, so there must be something going on that I’m not aware of—it’s been fascinating to conduct this top to bottom review of a sales organization and to identify the patterns that may have led to their demise.

If you’re working to grow the sales team in your high-growth startup, I recommend that you use these three recommendations as guidelines as you qualify candidates. By hiring hungry sales professionals with experience in high-growth environments, and drawing those candidates from diverse networks, you can hopefully avoid this kind of mass firing event.


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